The Fifties as I Never Knew Them

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The first duty of the historian, I used to tell my students, is to understand the past on its own terms. It should be obvious that good history requires an empathetic imagination: the ability to get inside the minds of those of other times and other places and see the world as they saw it. One may or may not, in the end, have sympathy for that other world. To understand a point of view is not necessarily to agree with it. But in any case, judgments of the past carry weight and invite assent only when marked with imaginative understanding.

Absent such understanding, historians fall into the fatal error of anachronistic judgment. In its extreme forms, we spot the error immediately. No serious scholar would take seriously, for example, a study of the Reformation era rebuking the disputants for their inordinate concern for religious dogma or their lack of mutual toleration. (Though I have read histories that did just that.) Protestants and Catholics fought each other over matters of doctrine because they were sure that these were, quite literally, issues of life or death. To "tolerate" an opponent's error on a fundamental point of doctrine was to consign all who might be seduced by that error to eternal damnation. Modern secularist scholars might wonder at that judgment and might well conclude that it is good that our present age has (for the most part) left that judgment behind. But if they are competent historians, they will, at least in the first instance, attempt to understand sixteenth-century religious disputes as the people of the time did.

Anachronistic judgments closer to us in time and place are more difficult to spot, but they are still abuses of history. I was reminded of that while watching, with rising choler, the History Channel's recent seven-part documentary, David Halberstam's The Fifties. (The series is roughly based on Halberstam's 1993 book and he figures prominently in it as a talking head.) The program's take on the fifties is essentially that of a prosecuting attorney's, and it brings to the decade's sensibility all the sympathy--and understanding--that H. L. Mencken brought to the rural culture of Tennessee in his coverage of the Scopes Trial in 1925. Where did these appalling (if often amusing) primitives come from, the series implicitly asks, and what are we civilized people to make of them? (I refer to "the series" rather than Halberstam himself because his book, for all its liberal superiority, had not nearly the air of unrelenting condescension of the television production.)

I do not pretend to disinterestedness on this matter. I came of age in the fifties, and I have a fondness for the period that quite transcends its actual qualities. My daughter recently remarked that, to hear me talk, civilization reached its fullest flower somewhere in the middle of the Eisenhower years. That exaggerates the point, of course--though, come to think of it, it is hard to imagine a quality of life richer than that attained in the American heartland in or about the year 1957.

My own prejudices aside, David Halberstam's The Fifties will seem, for those who lived through it, a grossly distorted portrait of the era--except, perhaps, for those who were miserable and alienated the whole time. There were such people, of course, as there are always people out of step with the dominant ethos of an age. But it seems odd that the perspective of the minority--and it was, except perhaps among intellectuals, a very small minority--should not merely overshadow but virtually obliterate that of the majority. This is a picture of the fifties pitched to the sensibility of the sixties. Indeed, the only hints of redeeming virtue the series finds in the fifties is in those instances where, as in the beginnings of the civil rights movement, we have anticipations of the next decade's excitements.

Other than that, it's all, to recall a phrase of the time, a vast wasteland. The first episode features the presumed twin horrors of the period--nuclear weapons and anti-Communist hysteria. …